Before arriving in Scotland I’d heard of something called the Scotch Whisky Experience (SWE). Other than reading it was worth visiting, and its near the Edinburgh Castle, I knew nothing about what it actually was other than it having something to do with scotch. Also, I knew it would make all my scotch loving friends massively jealous and that was enough to make up my mind…I was going! These types of tours are typically not as much fun solo, luckily I had met two friends (Andrea and Tim) in my hostel that also wanted to go.
Since we three were all traveling long-term, on a budget (Andrea, about 7 months and Tim, over 2 years!, and me, somewhere between), we chose to take the least expensive tour available. While some tours included dinner and some other extras, ours was more basic…but still fantastic! The tour guide placed us in a roller-coaster-like whisky barrel seat and we went on a 10 minute ride that explained the entire process of making Scotch. Starting with ingredients, then going through the different methods used to create malt, on to aging, bottling, etc. I knew most of the process already but they present the information in an interesting way and I think it would be easy for someone with no previous knowledge to follow along. After the informational ride our guide took us into a room with about 25 tasting glasses set up, unfortunately only one was for me. She explained the four main distilling regions for single malts in Scotland and the characteristics of each. They include:
Islay – Has distinct smoky flavors that come from peat.
Speyside – Where most Scotch distilleries are located and the two best-selling single malts in the world, The Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, are distilled here. Speyside Scotch tastes either grassy and light or sweet and rich.
Highland – Has a wide range of flavors due to its large geographical size. Tastes range from dry to sweet with a touch of smoke/peat.
Lowland – Light bodied with subtle malt and grassy aromas.
Along with the 4 main single malt regions there are also blended scotch whisky distillers (Johnny Walker being the world’s best selling) where they will mix several different single malts to create a unique blend.
After giving us the 411 on the single malt regions we practiced picking out the different aromas using a scratch and sniff card. No joke. After only a few minutes with the card, along with some tips/hints from our guide, we were (nearly) able detect fruity notes in Speyside Whiskies and the stronger smoky peat flavors from Islay. We then got to choose a single malt from one region, or a blend to taste. Since the night before I had indulged in a small, airplane sized bottle of 18-year-old Bowmore (an Islay scotch), I chose to try Speyside. Tim picked Islay and Andrea went with the Highland region. Out guide poured each of our drinks and led us to another room, the tasting room. While she was unlocking the door I realized this was the only locked room on the tour, and for good reason as it houses the world’s largest collection of unopened single malt scotch. Over 3400 unique bottles, no duplicates. That’s three thousand four hundred bottles of single malt scotch, unique and unopened! Owned by the parent company of Johnny Walker, and on loan to the SWE for 10 years, it’s the perfect place to taste scotch and end the tour. Since Andrea, Tim, and I each chose a different scotch to taste we decided to taste each others also. And with our new knowledge of the subtle flavors and aromas unique to each region it was quite easy to pick out the differences in the three, and I suspect if we were able to try whisky from the Lowlands on this day we could have picked out its characteristics as well.
Below is a video of the tasting room (apologies for the amateur-ish-ness, my cameraman doesn’t exist so I shot this with my iPhone).
You do not need to be a scotch connoisseur to enjoy this experience. The historical and cultural information learned from the SWE stand alone as reason enough to visit, and the whisky barrel ride, while sort of kitschy, is entertaining. The tasting at the end, in that tasting room, is just icing on the cake. I think almost anyone, apart from someone who is against drinking alcohol altogether, would have a good time at the SWE.
This was a really enjoyable morning for all three of us (that’s right, we were doing this at 10 am!) and something I wish I could have shared with my brother and our scotch loving friends, but was glad to share it with two other solo travelers nonetheless. It’s something I would recommend to anyone traveling to Edinburgh, and when I go back to Scotland I may do it again, just to see that collection!
I think everyone has been in this situation: You’ve heard person after person and review after review give the same high praise to something (like when you’re about to see a movie or read a book or listen to an album). Maybe it’s because I usually see new movies only when they make it to TV and discover new bands only after I hear friends talk about them for months, but it happens to me all the time. So, I try to keep expectations low after hearing good reviews of something because going in with those unachievable high expectations always leads to letdown; even if it ends up being great, the real thing can never live up to the hype.
I went to Belgium knowing it’s one of the top locales in the world (some would argue it is #1) when it comes to abundance of great beer. I knew the hype. I’d heard it many times before arriving in, and countless times the previous three months while traveling through, Europe. So, as is customary in this situation I went in with low expectations; not British Real Ale or Schlitz Ice low, but low nonetheless.
I must say: I was pleasantly surprised. Astonished actually. More on that later.
I’d actually started trying Belgian beers in The Netherlands while staying with my friends Hans and Drusella. Everywhere we went I tried either a local Dutch beer or a different Belgian, which were on ever menu…and all good. These beers were exactly what I’d expected and was accustomed to from trying imported Belgian beers like Duvel and Affligem in Kansas City. As mentioned before, Belgium has (perhaps) the greatest concentration of good beer in the world. It would be fun to taste as many as possible and write about my favorites. Fun, and expensive, and something I’d be more willing to try as a 23-year-old. Because of the scale of drinking that would entail, I took a slightly different approach to this edition of European Beer Culture Unfiltered. I’d be spending 4 nights in Belgium, two each in Brussels and then Brugge, and had heard about one specific (and unique) brewery in each city. In Brussels the Cantillon Brewery and in Brugge, De Halve Maan Brewery. I decided to take each brewery tour, taste their respective offerings and report on those experiences. So, here it is:
Cantillon Brewery in Brussels
Admittedly as I approached the Cantillon Brewery, in a sort of run down looking – off the tourist tract – Brussels neighborhood, I was skeptical. Surely this ‘great’ brewery wasn’t in this neighborhood with trash on every sidewalk and abandoned buildings on every street corner. But if there is one thing you learn over and over as a traveler, it’s to not judge a book by its cover. That applies with people as well as places, so walking into the brewery I was determined to find out for myself what Cantillon, and their beer, were all about. I immediately had a smile slapped on my face that wouldn’t leave until well after I’d taken the subway back toward my hostel. Upon entry you immediately see that this operation has been around for a while…its not just trying to look vintage, but actually old school.
Started in 1900 (and currently owned/operated by the 4th generation of the same family), Cantillon brews Lambic beer, a sour tasting beer that, due to the natural fermenting agents (bacteria and yeast) which are present in the ambient air of the wort cooling room, goes through spontaneous fermentation after being transferred to oak or chestnut barrels. Historically all beers were produced this way but after 1860 when Louis Pasteur made some discoveries in the exciting world of yeasts (that eventually led to the processes of TOP fermentation and BOTTOM fermentation, both of which utilize the intentional introduction of specific yeasts) that changed. Now only Lambic is still brewed using spontaneous fermentation.
Still with me? That is the boring technical stuff about Cantillon Brewery.
The fun stuff was the tour and tasting. I’ve only been on a few brewery tours but this was definitely the best! I think that’s because Cantillon is a true old-timey, family run operation and it being a self-guided tour with a read along informational booklet provided. I was able to go at my pace, take as many pictures as I wanted, and I had time to look at EVERYTHING. At one point I sat down and read part of the booklet for ten minutes. That would never happen in a larger brewery, guided tour environment.
After spending about an hour going through the facilities I made my way to the bar to get my, ‘included in the tour fee’, two sample beers! First they gave me a tasting glass with Grand Cru Bruocsella, a three-year old Lambic that, since it doesn’t undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle and no extraneous CO2 is added, is a beer without foam. Some call it the missing link between beer and wine. It was very sour, slightly too sour for my taste but after learning about the process and the beer I definitely appreciated the craftmanship involved in brewing Lambic. Getting to choose the second beer I would taste, I went for the one that
didn’t have any fruit added (many Lambic varieties have fruit soaked in the beer for many months to impart their flavors in the beer). I chose Gueuze. I know, funny name. (side note: Since I visited Cantillon I’ve tried to use Gueuze while playing Words with Friends to no avail!) Gueuze is a blend of one, two, and three-year old Lambics that DOES go through secondary fermentation in the bottle. A good Gueuze in a good cellar can keep for more than 25 years! This was also sour, but I thought smoother than the Grand Cru and since it was bottle conditioned had a head similar to what ‘modern’ beer would have. Both beers had a nice golden color and the tasting room was full of other tour goers chatting in between ‘bitter beer face’ looks. That made me laugh!
The whole experience, from walking in to taking the tour to tasting the finished products was great. And since I’d recently been told, by two different people, I was wearing one of two or three shirts in all my pictures (because I’m only traveling with a few shirts!), I bought a new Cantillon Brewery t-shirt. It was a great morning in Brussels!
De Halve Maan Brewery
Going back six generations the De Halve Maan Brewery in Brugge, formerly Henri Maes Brewery, has been operated by the same family. After a few incarnations of the company over the last few decades, including a name change to De Halve Maan (The Half Moon), this is the last brewery of what once were hundreds within the Brugge city walls. This, brewery which has been used for generations, is still being in production today and along with their other facility nearby but outside the city (there was no room for expansion) the beer they produce is, in my opinion, phenomenally good.
Located on a busy square in touristy Brugge it’s a much more commercial looking set up than the Cantillon Brewery. It has to be more commercial to survive in this environment. That said,
the price for a tour was inexpensive at 7 Euro (including the beer) and the guided tour, while fast paced and crowded, was interesting (I had a great tour guide) and informational. And by placing myself at the end of the line most of the time, I was able to hang around in some areas to snap a few photos as if I were there alone. Like I said, this brewery has been in operation for well over 100 years and while they’ve upgraded to more efficient, modern equipment in many areas of the operation, the ambiance of generations past remains. More ‘modern’ styles of beer are brewed here, no Lambics, so there would be nothing sour about this day, not even the taste! The complimentary beer received here is not a taster, rather a full pint of Brugse Zot in their signature glass (every beer has its own glass in Europe, and they are all shaped differently). This goldenblond beer is the brainchild of the sixth generation leader of this brewery and was introduced in 2005. To me it was kind of a cross between really good craft brewed Pale Ale and Wheat beer in the States. There was nothing overpowering about the taste or aroma and at the same time I could tell I was enjoying a something special.
Later I would find out people come from all over Europe, and the World, to drink this beer in the exact place I was sitting. But why? Being the only beer still produced in Brugge’s town center, it is said to have a different, better taste at the brewery. Although I didn’t hear if there is any validity to this claim, I would guess it has something to do with the beer served here being at its best and not sent to a bottling facility outside the city. Whether it’s local legend or actual fact, I felt truly lucky to enjoy a truly great beer in this place.
The next day, my last in Brugge, I was out getting a bite to eat and noticed the other style of beer produced by De Halve Maan, Straffe Hendrik (Strong Henry). There are a couple different varieties: Straffe Hendrik Tripel and Straffe Hendrik Quadruple. Since I’ve tried a few in the past I went with the Tripel so I could compare it to others. First off, it was better than other Tripels I’ve tried. A smooth, hoppy taste with a complexity of flavor I’ve rarely encountered. And it was better than the Brugse Zot I tried at the brewery, I wasn’t expecting that. In fact Straffe Hendrik Tripel is the best beer I’ve ever tasted. Again…the BEST BEER I’VE EVER HAD! EVER!! I really wasn’t expecting that! The intense flavors somehow manage to not overpower each other and it’s drinkability remains even though it is a 9% beer. Also, this beer has an awesome history I didn’t know until writing this article. It was developed on demand of the local Mayor in 1981 to be served at the inauguration of the statue of Sint-Arnoldus, the saint of beer brewers. How cool is that?
So knowing I wouldn’t be able to try all the great beers in Belgium I narrowed my scope and tried beers from two local brewers owned by two brewing families in two great cities. The results were interesting, educational, and…well…tasty! I couldn’t have been more pleased with both experiences: the traditional and historic sour taste at Cantillon Brewery (one of the last breweries still doing it the ‘old way’) and the indescribable perfection at De Halve Maan.
Irish stout, or ‘leann dubh’ (black beer) in Irish, has a dark, rich color and when poured correctly, a nice thick creamy head. The taste of coffee and/or roasted malt normally comes out when drinking an Irish stout and some people also get a hint of chocolate in a subtle sweet aftertaste.
Guinness – Everyone around the world knows Guinness. Based in Dublin (since 1759) they’ve brewed beer since 1756 and after starting life making ale they changed to porter (stout). At one time Guinness was the largest brewer of beer in the world and is still the largest brewer of stout.
Beamish – Brewing since 1792 and based in Cork, Beamish was the largest brewery in Ireland for about 30 years in the early 19th century. Their flagship brew has always been Beamish Stout. This brewery is now owned by Heineken.
Murphy’s – Established in 1856 and, like Beamish also based in Cork and currently owned by Heineken. During the last two decades of the 20th century it was heavily marketed to international beer consumers but failed to make a heavy dent in Guinness’s mighty market share.
That’s a little background on the main players in the Irish Stout game. The only real question is about taste, and like anything else that’s subjective, it is a personal preference. A local Cork bartender told me Beamish has the strongest taste and Murphy’s is really close in taste to Guinness. After tasting all three in a three night span, in the cities they are brewed, I’d agree with that.
Personally, I like Guinness (with Murphy’s a very close second) and like a lot of people, think Guinness in Ireland tastes better than Guinness somewhere else… but the Murphy’s I had in Cork also tasted better than Guinness I’ve had back home too. I’ll have to try Murphy’s in the US to find out if it’s as good as the Murphy’s in Cork, but I doubt it. Maybe the taste here is getting an Irish ambiance boost! And Beamish was a little too close to coffee for my tastes so it ran a distant third in the taste race.
In the past Irish Stout was the beer of choice for locals (Guinness in the north and Murphy’s in the south), but that’s been changing for a couple of decades. Nowadays, lighter ales, lagers,and pilsners are more popular. In fact, I saw more locals drinking Budweiser than any dark beer (as an American who likes beer with some taste, this was sad to see), but I guess foreign beer is exotic all around the world (Aussies don’t drink Foster’s but it’s popular in the UK).
Way back in my college days I was like most Midwestern College students in that I drank what I could afford. And like many Midwestern College students I seemed to drink more often than not so what I could afford was usually the cheapest bulk case of shitty beer in the liquor store cooler. But for the better part of a decade my beer pallet has been evolving. I’ve become a craft beer (particularly ales) junkie! I love brown’s, red’s, pale’s, hefe’s…the list goes on. While I don’t claim to be a connoisseur, I do enjoy trying beers from previously unknown breweries and new beers from my favorite regional and national craft brewers. So it should come as no surprise to those who know me that I’ve tried local beers at nearly every stop on my travels so far. Actually that may have been one of the things I‘d been looking forward to most when I started traveling!
Southern Europe was all about wine but now I’m getting to the areas where beer is king; England, Ireland, Belgium, the Czech Republic… I’ll visit these places and more in the next few months. And doing ‘research’ along the way I’ll try to write in-depth blog posts about Europe’s beer culture. Here’s my first report!
On my first day walking around London I kept noticing restaurants and pubs having ‘real ale’ advertised. Real ale? It’s a term I was unfamiliar with so like any good ale junkie I had to investigate. The jaded tourism cynic in me thought this would be some London gimmick to trick tourists into paying a little extra for a pint but that couldn’t have been further from reality.
Here’s a simplified explanation of real ale but it should suffice for this post. Real ale is a recent term (1970’s) given to beer made from traditional ingredients that goes through a secondary fermentation either in the cask it’s dispensed from or the bottle, and served without an extra carbon dioxide source. In layman’s terms, real ale isn’t put in a keg like most people in the states are familiar with (while pouring ‘keg’ beer, additional CO2 gets added), isn’t pasteurized and isn’t filtered. For real ale no extraneous CO2 is needed, the second fermentation provides all the CO2 needed.
So that’s the boring technical stuff. Now,the real question…how does it taste?
Honestly, I was disappointed. I tried six to eight different beers, from different brewers, in three different cities, within ten days of taking the Chunnel from Paris, and (with the exception of rhubarb ale, NO THANKS!) I tasted anything the bartenders suggested, and they all tasted about the same. Forgettable. From what I’ve read about real ales, adhering to the ‘traditional’ process is supposed to let hop and malt flavors develop but I thought they all tasted flat and a bit bland. Flavorless. Even the so called ‘hoppy’ ales I tasted didn’t have the big flavor I was expecting (and accustomed to with hoppy craft varieties enjoyed across the pond). I know it’s possible these real ales taste flat to me because I’ve become accustomed to beer with added CO2 stateside, but that doesn’t account for a lack of flavor in my opinion.
I remember several years ago when I first strayed from the volume pilsner producers in the US and began trying craft beers, I wasn’t immediately a fan. I could tell it was something different but it was an intriguing difference so I kept trying them. Not long after, there was no turning back. When trying the real ales here in the UK I thought my lack of enthusiasm could be, like before, because it was something new and different. Maybe something that would grow on me. But it hasn’t. The difference between then and now, at least for the real ales I’ve tried so far, is they are boring. You know when you try something and you aren’t sure if you like it or not so you keep trying it until you figure it out. That’s not what is happening here. I am 100% sure I don’t like what I’ve tried so far. Let me put it this way: if I hadn’t been planning to write this article I don’t think I’d have tried more than two different flavorless real ales before moving on to something else.
After coming to this conclusion I thought there must be others that have this same opinion. Either that or I’m a dumb Yank that doesn’t understand British hops. To my surprise, it was the former. Not only did I find those with like thinking, I found some in Britain…the hub of real ale production and drinking worldwide. Check out this article for proof that I’m not a dumb Yank (at least not in this situation):
The one redeeming quality I’ve gleaned from the real ale experience is the way it’s dispensed. It’s either gravity fed from a tapped cask (cool) at the bar or manually drawn with a hand pump from the cellar up to the bar (very cool to a dumb Yank!). While this is an interesting way of getting my beer poured it’s not nearly enough novelty to make up for the lack of taste.
On a completely off topic note (but still drinking related!); while walking through Norwich this week I passed by a whisky shop (no vodka, gin, rum or beer…just whisky). After popping my head in I was pleased to see they not only had hundreds of different scotches, bourbons, and worldly whisky’s for sale, they also had three tapped oak barrels of their own blends and single malts (8 yr, 10 yr, 12 yr). Customers could fill any of three sizes of bottle to purchase or take a bit as a taste test. It was a good day!
During dinner at my work-in-trade hosts house in Portugal she mentioned a place local people go to get food/drink. The specific one she was talking about is a bar like any other except the owner also has an unregulated, untaxed restaurant and ‘winery’ on site. A place called an adega. If you read my post about fortified wine you know I love to try homemade spirits so I kept asking questions about this adega until Janet offered to take me there the next day!
We arrived and walked up to the bar, no one was around. Janet walked to another door (there were several), knocked and called out. No answer. She walked into the restaurant and rattled the door. No answer. After nearly 5 minutes a nice woman came from the back (I think she was in the adega working!). She and Janet spoke in Portuguese for a few seconds. I don’t know exactly what they said but I got the gist: ‘I brought this American to try your wine’.
So we walked through the backdoor into a small triangle-shaped yard full of dogs then into the barn (winery). It was good-sized with piles of stuff all over that looked untouched for years. It seemed to mainly be used as storage except one end where several stainless steel tanks and a few very old oak barrels lined the wall. There were also at least 100 plastic jugs they use to sell the wine in, all the same size (about 4 gallons)….the only size sold. Cost: Four Euros. Yes, you read correctly….one Euro per gallon!
The worker cleaned out a jug for us and when nearly done filling it asked if we wanted a complimentary glass. Who could resist that offer? Not us, so we sat down at one of two tables and began drinking our wine as a few other friends came in. I say ‘friends’ and not customers because to buy food from the restaurant or wine from the adega you must be known (or invited by someone who is) to the house. Since the restaurant and adega aren’t strictly…legal, you won’t get served if you aren’t known. Strangers could be the policia! So we sat drinking our wine and before we finished the other friends bought us another round. There was no offer to buy us a drink, it just happened. I certainly didn’t know them and Janet had never met them either but she said this happens sometimes. This particular gentleman knew no stranger and talked with Janet for a few minutes, then after finding out I am from the United States tried to talk with me as well. His English was quite limited and my Portuguese even worse so I don’t know what the conversation was about but I could tell he was a nice, funny guy.
After downing the 2nd glass of this wine we said obrigado (thank you in Portuguese) and escaped before another round came.
If you’re wondering….the wine was drinkable but not great (hey, it was only 4 Euros) and we didn’t eat at the restaurant…..you have to call ahead and make a reservation! True story.
Listen up class….here’s a quick booze lesson for you novices:
Fortified wine is simply wine that has a spirit added to it, normally brandy. Some common types of fortified wine are sherry, vermouth and port. True port wine is exclusively produced in the northern part of Portugal in an area around the city Porto called the Douro Valley. Porto is the historic home of the port wine trade.
At my new friend Janet’s house in central Portugal we had just finished dinner and she pulled out a bottle of port wine (port is a great dessert wine). I’d previously tried what someone called port several years earlier at a party in Kansas City and it was awful. I chalked the awfulness up to it just being a bad bottle (and probably not a bottle from Portugal) and was eager to taste some REAL port wine. After all….I was less than 150 miles from Porto and the Douro Valley!
Janet poured two glasses of red Tawny which is a style of port aged in wooden barrels. This causes gradual oxidation which imparts slight nutty flavors into the sweet wine. She may have been surprised at how eager I was to try port (later she told me I was one of the few work-in-trade travelers she had hosted that drank alcohol at all) and how much I liked it. I really enjoyed this Tawny port with its sweet taste. I’ve had sweet wines before but this was different. The sweetness was not as overpowering. And is was MUCH better than that impostor port from years earlier!
She quickly reached to her liquor shelf and picked out another bottle to try. I was thrilled!! The 2nd bottle was not a port as it wasn’t produced in the Douro valley, but it was a fortified wine made in another part of Portugal. This wine had a faint golden color with a slightly mellower sweetness than the red Tawny. And it was even tastier!
After Janet saw how much I enjoyed this 2nd drink, she pulled from deep on the liquor shelf and came out with a bottle that was very dusty that had one lonely homemade label. She said she received this bottle as a gift a couple of years earlier. It was one of those “I have a friend who has an uncle that makes his own fortified wine” kinds of scenarios. The label only read “1999 Late Bottled Vintage”. Though I haven’t had the occasion to try that many homemade, home-brewed, home distilled beers, liquors, wines in my life, I LOVE trying them..…even the lighter-fluid like moonshine called slivovice from the Czech Republic I was lucky enough to try a few times after making friends with exchange students years ago. I was tremendously excited to try this homemade fortified wine! Not surprisingly it was the best of the three. The homemade wine was extremely smooth with a long, subtle, semi-sweet aftertaste. It was fantastic!!
The whole experience was fantastic. These moments are exactly the kind of thing I was searching out when I packed up and began traveling. An impromptu, informal fortified wine tasting in the home of someone I had known for 5 days. A perfect memory and a good blog post. Thanks Janet!